Friday, September 30, 2005

Smith & Pemberton: "Compelled to Appear in Print: The Vicksburg Manuscript of General John C. Pemberton"

In 1995, General John C. Pemberton’s 178-page defense of his actions during the Vicksburg Campaign turned up at an estate sale in Ohio. The manuscript was a refutation of the charges brought against him by his superior, General Joseph E. Johnston, in Johnston’s 1874 book Narrative of Military Operations. In 1999, David M. Smith finished editing the manuscript for Ironclad Publishing and the book was released as Compelled to Appear in Print: The Vicksburg Manuscript of General John C. Pemberton.

Smith does a great job of placing Pemberton’s manuscript in a proper context and provides a great deal of background information and analysis that greatly enhances the book's value. He begins by introducing the two Confederate leaders and outlining what Pemberton believed to be the eight charges leveled against him by Johnston in Johnston's Narrative. These charges involve several instances of disobedience of orders, including a failure to concentrate for battle and a determination to stand a siege rather than abandon Vicksburg to save the army.

The manuscript itself is very interesting in content but an often laborious read as Pemberton's writing style is dreadfully plodding and disjointed. Helpfully, Smith provides the reader with well-placed excerpts from Johnston’s book so the reader can make a side-by-side comparison at key points in the manuscript. What some readers may be surprised to find is the fact that Pemberton makes a very credible defense of his actions during the early stages of the campaign (at least up until his disastrous decision-making immediately preceding Champion Hill). However, like most human beings, he doesn't take responsibility for any specific mistakes and joins Johnston in this regard.

The manuscript does not include any significant new revelations but it is nonetheless an important historical document written by one of the commanders in defense of his actions during an important campaign. What is does serve to do (with the excellent assistance of editor Dave Smith) is confirm the absurdity of some of the charges leveled against Pemberton that seem to be continually accepted rather uncritically by subsequent readers and historians. In this regard, it rather reminds me of the treatment of George McClellan. Both Pemberton and McClellan were grudgingly given respect by their critics for their administrative abilities yet roundly condemned for their apparent lack of battlefield prowess. Additionally, the level of abuse heaped upon both men (both deserved and undeserved) has reached such a level of continual amplification that the men are permanently diminished in popular historical memory, immune to fair treatment. Well, nearly immune. I'm no great fan of McClellan--or Pemberton for that matter--, but as far as fair treatment goes, I think that Dave Smith in a small way has done for John C. Pemberton here what Ethan Rafuse (which reminds me that I need to read McClellan's War) and Russel Beatie have more recently done for McClellan. It's good to see.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Interesting project and I look forward to reading it. I admire Pemberton very much as a man of principle. It's ironic that he returned to Philadelphia after the war and lies buried not far from Gen. George Meade in Laurel Hill Cemetery.


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